Richard Wagner Die Feen is being broadcast on BBC Radio 3 Monday (and available for a week thereafter). It's the hoary old Edward Downes recording but it's free and worth listening to as part of Wagner performance history. As an artistic experience, the later recording, conducted by Wolfgang Sawallisch is preferable. There are at least two other recordings, but I'm not devoted enoough or have time enough to have heard and compared them all. Die Feen was written when Wagner was only 20.years old. It's a work of exuberant teenage enthusiasm. To give it the polished sheen of his mature work would spoil its naive charm.
Growing up in Leipzig and Dresden, there was no way Wagner would not have been influenced by Carl Maria von Weber. Echoes of Weber keep resounding throughout Die Feen, making us recognize just how great a debt Wagner owed Weber and the whole early Romantic aesthetic, which itself stems from the baroque. That's why it is essential to appreciate operas that might not be "modern taste", like Der Freischütz. Listening through the blinkers of modern taste is bigotry. We can't appreciate Wagner fully without understanding his roots. Although we recognize references to Mozart and Beethoven, the Weber references dominate. Weber, Mendelssohn and Schumann might have been heading in terms of creating new forms of music theatre. We're blinded by modern taste to think mainly in terms of late 19th century style. Die Feen is interesting because it shows Wagner working within Weber's style without much success. The ensemble writing, for example, isn't elegant. We need to wait for the quintet in Die Meistersinger before Wagner releases true good-natured harmony.
It's also interesting to hear how much Die Feen suggests about Wagner's later work. Even at this early stage in his career, Wagner is not following conventional icons, but developing his own. Ada is half-fairy, half-mortal, like Loge. She must hide her identity from Arindal, though they love each other and have raised a family. Lohengrin merely sails away from Eva on his swan-ship. Arindal and Ada are cursed with a ferocity that makes the curse of the Ring look tame. Ada is imprisoned not by a ring of fire but by a block of stone, from which she can only be released by love. The fairies in Die Feen are warrior-like precursors of the Valkyries. Even Lora, Ada's sister, is formidable, more Brünnhilde than fairy tale princess.
Some of the best music in Die Feen is written for the female voices. Ada's call for action is stunning, then completely upstaged by Ada's long, stirring monologue. It feels like a duel between voices as well as between roles. Listen to Act 2 , especially the Hélas! monologue, with its sudden leaps up the scale. There's Hélas chorus, too, but the solo writing is infinitely sharper.
Arindal, the husband, is another huge part complete with mad scene, a reference to Orlando Furioso, where the hero is unmanned by love and grief. Early Romantic plots may seem ludicrous to us, but to audiences in their time, elaborate plots reflected the sagas of the baroque. The idea that opera has to be realistic, or that every word counts is an affectation that stems from much later. Wagner created the revolution, but he learned to do so from the early Romantic interest in individualism, poetry and philosophy. I'd really like to hear Die Feen with period instruments, to release the rambunctious energy in the opera. It isn't a great opera by any means, but if all we ever listened to was "great", our culture would be impoverished